Monthly Archives: August 2020

S.A.M. 2600

A software speech synthesizer for the Atari 2600. Make your 2600 talk! Sing! Say rude words!

Add voice to your own games and relive the glory days when computer speech had a charming personality and bounded intelligibility.


See it in action on YouTube. Source code at

A Brief History of Speech Synthesis

While mechanical speech synthesis dates back to the 18th century, the first successful attempt based on electronics was ‘An Electrical Analogue of the Vocal Organs’ by John Q. Stewart in 1922. It was capable of saying such interesting things as mama, anna, wow-wow, and yi-yi.

Stewart Circuit

His circuit consisted of a buzzer to simulate the vocal cords and a pair of oscillators to simulate the resonance of the mouth and throat. By varying the capacitance, resistance and inductance of the circuit he could produce a series of vowel-like sounds; probably the very first example of circuit bending. I would love to see someone recreate this and learn how to play it.

These resonance frequencies are known as formants. The human vocal tract has lots of potential for complicated resonances in the mouth, throat, nasal cavities etc. The mouth formant (f1) and throat format (f2) are critical to creating sounds that are recognizable as speech. The ratio on f1 to f2 define the sound of various vowels.

The overall pitch or fundamental frequency of speech comes from oscillations of the vocal cords: the buzzer in this model. Expressive speech depends a lot on correct modulation of pitch. This fundamental frequency is typically known as f0.

The Vocoder

The first device capable of general speech was introduced to the world in 1939. The Bell Telephone Laboratory’s Voder imitated the human vocal tract and when played by a trained operator could produce recognizable, albeit creepy, speech.

Voder Schematic

The Voder made its first public appearance in 1939 at the New York World’s Fair.

Voder Schematic

The Voder performed speech synthesis by emulating some of the behavior of the human vocal tract. It selectively fed two basic sounds, a buzz and a hiss, though a series of 10 bandpass filters. By selecting the buzzing source the machine could produce voiced vowels and nasal sounds, voiceless and fricative sounds were produced by filtering the hissing noise.

If a keyboard and pedals could be used to produce speech then so could a low bitrate digital signal. Homer Dudley, Voders creator, with the help of Alan Turing went on to contribute to SIGSALY, a compressed and encrypted speech system that successfully secured communications between the likes of Churchill and Roosevelt during the war.


In 1961, physicist John Larry Kelly, Jr used an IBM 704 computer sing the song “Daisy”. This demo inspired one of the greatest moments in all of cinema when Arthur C. Clarke, who was visiting the lab at the time, decided that a certain HAL 9000 would serenade Dave Bowman whilst being lobotomized.

“My instructor was Mr. Langley, and he taught me to sing a song. If you’d like to hear it I can sing it for you.”

Talking Chips

By the 70s companies like Votrax were producing discrete logic speech synthesizers and text-to-speech algorithms. The United States Naval Research Laboratory, or “NRL” text-to-phoneme algorithm was developed by a collaboration between Votrax and the NRL in 1973. “Automatic Translation of English Text to Phonetics by Means of Letter-to-Sound Rules” allowed translation from arbitrary text to phonemes, the smallest units of sound in a word that makes a difference in its pronunciation and meaning. Phonetic alphabets such as ARPABET are used as a common representation of speech to program these devices.

By the end of the 70s and early 80s a variety of integrated circuit speech synthesizers have emerged. The Texas instruments’ LPC speech chip family bring the Speak and Spell to life but early versions could only play back a fixed set of words.

The Votrax SC-01, famous for its use in the arcade games like Gorf, Wizard of Wor, Q-bert (where Q-bert would swear with random phonemes) was one of the first affordable simple formant synthesizers that could produce arbitrary speech; phoneme input was rendered into sequences of formants for vowels, and filtered noise for consonants and unvoiced sounds.

Chips like the SC-01 (Alien Group Voice Box) and the GI-SPO256 (Intellivoice) started to appear in peripherals for the growing personal computer market. The stage was set for a cheaper, more versatile software alternative.

Software Automatic Mouth (SAM)

In 1982 Don’t Ask Software (now SoftVoice, Inc.) released S.A.M. The Software Automatic Mouth, a voice synthesis program for Atari, Apple and Commodore computers written by Mark Barton. At $59.95 (at least for the Atari version) it was much cheaper than the hardware alternatives. It included a text-to-phoneme converter and a phoneme-to-speech routine for the final output.

SAM used a rule based translation of text to speech that owes a lot to the NRL work from 1973. It used formant synthesis to generate sounds in a way that is efficient enough to run in the limited environments of home computers of that area. There were a few limitations: the Atari and Commodore versions needed to disable the screen while generating audio which limited the kinds of applications that could be created, and the Apple 1 bit speaker modulation sounded a little rough. But the overall effect was magical – software was talking, and in some cases, singing.

To help introduce the Macintosh in 1984 Steve Jobs turned to Mark Barton and Andy Hertzfeld to bring SAM to a new audience as MacinTalk:

How SAM2600 Works

After 38 years I have finally got around to answering a question I pondered to myself in 1982 when I first heard SAM talk on my Atari 800: Could SAM run on something as constrained as an Atari 2600?

A 2600 only has 128 bytes of RAM vs 48k on the 800, a ratio of 1:384. It has a slower clock (1.19Mhz vs 1.79Mz), no disk drive etc. But it had the same CPU architecture and similar audio hardware: an exotic 4 bit DAC. Surely there was a way…..

When Sebastian Mackie created a C version of SAM from disassembled 6502 code my interest was rekindled. Although the batch generation of phonemes from text and then sound from phonemes was well beyond the memory capacity of the 2600 I realized that splitting the process and thinking of the problem more like a Voder could make something that would fit on the console.

Internally SAM has a three stage pipeline: text to phoneme, phoneme to allophone, allophone to pcm. Allophones are sounds, a phoneme is a set of such sounds (long vowels and diphthongs have two allophones, plosives often have three, other phonemes just have one).

The first two stages are rules based and have a non-trivial code footprint. If you are trying to put a game onto a 4k cartridge there isn’t a whole lot of room. But the allophone to audio stage looks a little more manageable.

Fitting into an Atari 2600

SAM2600 separates the complex rule based parts from the allophone to audio stage. The code that runs on the 2600 is analogous to playing the Voder, a compressed stream of phoneme/allophone/timing data. The complex stuff is moved to a web based authoring tool were tons on RAM and compute make it easy to create and share speech.


The SAM2600 Authoring Tool produces a compressed format designed to be compact but easy to interpret at runtime. Individual phoneme/allophones are encoded as two or three bytes. Pauses are encoded as 1 byte. This format encodes speech at around 25-30 bytes per second, roughly the speed of a 300 baud modem.

// Compress samples into atari runtime version
// A sample is encoded as 1,2 or 3 bytes
// Sample timing units are in VBLs so PAL and NTSC are going to be a bit different

//	0: 0x00 			end of sequence

//	0: 0x01-0x4F		formant index
//	1: run:5 mix:3 		run (how long the phoneme lasts) and mix (duration of mixing with last phoneme)

//	0: 0x50-0x7F  		silence frame count + 0x50

//	0: 0x81-0xCF		(formant index | 0x80)
//  1: pitch 			updated pitch value (f0)
//	2: run:5 mix:3 		run (how long the phoneme lasts) and mix (duration of mixing with last phoneme)

//	0: 0xD0-0xFF		escape code + 0xD0 for signaling

One of the delights of programming the Atari 2600 is the proximity of the code to the hardware generating the video and audio. Unlike the Atari 8 bit computers there is no DMA, interrupts or other modern conveniences that get in the way of generating real time media. I love systems like that.

The challenge is to integrate the speech engine into some other useful context (like a game) that needs to draw on the screen do some useful processing. The solution is that SAM2600 only uses every second line to generate samples (at a rate of 7860 samples/second) which is plenty for speech. Some creativity will be required operate in this mode but 2600 programmers are a scrappy bunch.

The speech engine uses a stream of phonemes that index a table of formant frequencies (f1,f2) and amplitudes (a1,a2). These four values are interpolated alongside pitch (f0) during VBL to produce smoothly varying speech. These format tables can be modified to produce voices of different gender, age and planet of origin.

If the phoneme is unvoiced (‘S’ in She Sells Sea Shells) the engine selects hardware generated noise of the appropriate frequency and volume.

In voiced phonemes, formant frequencies are used with sinewave DDS to produce two of the three tones required for intelligible speech. The two values are summed together and output to a 4 bit DAC: the channel volume register AUDV1.

Pitch is incredibly important to reproducing intelligible speech and given we only have ~70 cycles to produce a sample, modulation of f1,f2 by the vocal cord pulse would seem impossible. SAM had a brilliant trick for this: resetting the DDS counters every pitch period produces a nice f0 buzz with very little CPU time.

It is remarkable how much SAM2600 has in common with Stewart’s work from 1922. A buzzer and two formant frequencies mixed dynamically is just about all you need.

The speech engine uses 33 bytes of RAM and 1.2k of ROM leaving up to 2.8k for speech in a 4k cartridge. This is enough for about 2 minutes of continuous unique speech, or as much as you like with fancy bank switching.

The examples use ~.5k to produce an animation that maps phonemes to mouth shapes. These mappings are far from perfect but the effect seems to work fairly well. Our brains are pretty good at filling in the blanks.

The Future

In the decades since SAM was created speech synthesis has evolved tremendously. Progress in the last couple of years has been greatly accelerated by advances in deep learning: rule based approaches and heuristics have given way to huge networks and eerily accurate results.

If someone out there has time on their hands I would love to see modern deep learning based TTS applied to the SAM2600 engine. The data format is expressive enough to produce much more accurate prosody and expressiveness than what is possible to create with rule based approaches.

Looking forward to see what folks do with this,


ESPFLIX: A free video streaming service that runs on an ESP32

Find yourself stuck indoors during a pandemic? Why not build an open source settop box and connect to the only microcontroller powered video streaming service?

See it in action on YouTube. Source at


ESPFLIX is designed to run on the ESP32 within the Arduino IDE framework. Like the ESP_8_BIT, the schematic is pretty simple:

    |         |
    |      25 |------------------> video out
    |         |
    |      18 |---/\/\/\/----|---> audio out
    |         |     1k       |
    |         |             ---
    |  ESP32  |             --- 10nf
    |         |              |
    |         |              v gnd
    |         |
    |         |     3.3v <--+-+   IR Receiver
    |         |      gnd <--|  )  TSOP4838 etc.
    |       0 |-------------+-+       -> AppleTV remote control

You will also need an AppleTV remote control or similar. Lots of compatible remotes on ebay for a few dollars. It is pretty easy to adapt other remotes, see ir_input.h for details.


On first boot select a WiFi access point and enter a password. If you need to change the access point at a later time hold the menu key during the splash screen to return to the access point selection screen.

Access Point Selection

Once in the top level menu scroll left and right to select something to watch. When in playback left and right on the remote will fast forward / rewind. up and down will skip forward and back by 30 seconds. menu will save the position of the current content and return you to the selection screen.

New this month on ESPFLIX

Posters of Lineup

Ok, so it is a slightly smaller collection than Netflix but still stuff that is funny/enjoyable/interesting. Big shout out to the brilliant Nina Paley for all her great work.

How It Works

Building on the NTSC/PAL software video output created for ESP_8_BIT, ESPFLIX adds video and audio codecs and a AWS streaming service to deliver a open source pastiche of Netflix.

MPEG1 Software Video Codec

In 1993, Compact Disc Digital Video was introduced. Using the MPEG1 video codec, it squeezed 74 minutes onto a CD. Earlier that year the Voyager Company had used Quicktime and the Cinepak software codec to produce the first movie ever to be released on CD-ROM: The Beatle’s Hard Days Night.

While codecs have improved in the intervening decades the MPEG1 codec uses many of the same techniques as modern codecs: transform coding, motion estimation and variable length coding of prediction residuals are still the foundations of modern codecs like H264.

The standard MPEG1 resolution of 352×240 (NTSC) or 352×288 (PAL) seems like a good match for our ESP32 video output resolution. Because MPEG1 can encode differences between frames (predicted or “P” frames) you need 2 frame buffers at this resolution. MPEG1 normally also encodes differences between past and future frames (bidirectionally predicted or “B” frames) so that means 3 buffers.

A quick bit of math on the size of these frame buffers (each encoded in YUV 4:1:1 color space) yields 352 * 288 * 3 * 1.5 = 456192 which much more memory than the ESP32 has to offer. So we need to make a few concessions. We can live without B frames: they improve overall coding performance but it is easy to create nice looking video without them. We can also reduce the vertical resolution: 1993 was still a 4:3 world, 352×192 is a fine aspect ratio for the 2020s.

Even though 352 * 192 * 2 * 1.5 = 202752 seems a lot more manageable getting a MPEG1 software codec be performant still has its challenges. You can’t just malloc contiguous buffers of that size in one piece on an ESP32. They need to be broken up into strips and all the guts of the codec that does fiddly half-pixel motion compensation has to be adjusted according. Much of this memory needs to be allocated from a pool that can only be addressed 32 bits at a time, further complicating code that needs to run as fast as possible. If the implementation of the MPEG1 decoder looks weird it is normally because it is trying to deal with aligned access and chunked allocation of the frame buffers.

SBC Software Audio Codec

SBC is a low-complexity subband codec specified by the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG) for the Advanced Audio Distribution Profile (A2DP). Unlike the MP2 codec typically used along side MPEG1 video, SBC uses tiny 128 sample buffers (as opposed to 1152 for MP2). That may not sound like much but with so little memory available it made the world of difference.

I originally wrote this implementation for a Cortex M0: it works fine on that tiny device with limited memory and no hardware divider. Its low complexity is handy given the SBC audio codec runs on core 1 of the ESP32 alongside the video NTSC/PAL encoding, the IP stack and the Delta-Sigma modulator.

Delta-Sigma (ΔΣ; or Sigma-Delta, ΣΔ) Modulators

I love Delta-Sigma modulators. Despite the vigorous debate over the correct name ordinality they are a versatile tool that can be used for both high performance ADCs and DACs. A great introduction can be found at

The ESP32 has one built into I2S0. Sadly we are using I2S0 for video generation, so we will have to generate our signal in software. To turn a 48khz, 16 bit mono PCM stream into oversampled single bit stream we will have to choose a modulator that has nice noise characteristics but is fast enough to run on already busy microcontroller.

For this design I settled on a second order cascade-of-resonators, feedback form (CRFB) delta sigma modulator running at a 32x oversample rate. 32x is normally lower than one would like (64x is more typical) but given the already tight constraints on buffering and compute it seemed like a fair tradeoff. The noise shaping is good enough to shove the quantization energy higher in the spectrum allowing the RC filter on the audio pin to do its job efficiently. For each 16 bit PCM sample we produce 32 bits that we jam into the I2S peripheral as if it were a 48khz stereo PCM stream. The resulting 1.5Mbit modulated signal sounds pretty nice once filtered.

Turns out most TVs have filtering built in, directly connecting the digital audio out pin without the RC filter will normally sound fine, just don’t look at it on a scope.

I used the great tool hosted at the University of Ulm to design the filter and calculate coefficients to get the desired noise shaping characteristics:

Delta Sigma Design

Fig.1 CRFB 2nd Order Delta Sigma Modulator

Frequency Response

Fig.2 Noise shaping pushes quantization errors to higher frequencies

Displaying Video

Video display is similar to the ESP_8_BIT although there are a few differences. Because we have 2 frame buffers we can display one while drawing the other, or we can smoothly scroll between them during vertical blanking.

It is worth noting the DAC used to display video is 8 bit / 3.3V. We only use enough bits to get the ~1V range required for video. A voltage divider would allow us more dynamic range on the video but would require a little more assembly. At some point I will add an option to get slightly better video quality using this method.


This all depends on the fantastic AWS infrastructure. Because we are so tight on memory (~10k left once video is running) we don’t have a lot of memory for buffering. Netflix uses many megabytes of buffering, MPEG1 systems like VideoCD needed a minimum of ~50k, we have all of 6k at our disposal. The LWIP stack that the ESP32 uses is not really optimized for streaming media. If the servers are sufficiently far way the TCP AIMD algorithm never has a chance to open the window enough to get reasonable throughput. To overcome this limitation I will offer the service through AWS Cloudfront to try and optimize the experience of those fiddling with it for as long as I can afford it.

The video files themselves are encoded with ffmpeg at around 1.5MBits. Rate control models / multiplexer don’t really work with tiny buffers so your mileage may vary. Although everything is out of spec for the most part audio and video show up at roughly the right time.

The system also produces trick mode streams for smooth fast forward and rewind plus an index that allows mapping of time from one stream to another. This index can’t fit in memory but by using http range requests we can lookup any slice of the index without loading the whole thing.


The ESP32 is a great little device. Kind of amazing you can create a settop box for less than the price of a remote control and that platforms like AWS enable a streaming service like this for very little time/money.